EXCALIBUR (1981) – a classic British fantasy film

Monday , 27, February 2017 18 Comments

Excalibur is a 1981 British film directed and co-written by John Boorman, known for the bizarre cult classic Zardoz and the iconic hillbilly horror movie Deliverance.

Excalibur is something extraordinary: a faithful adaptation of the King Arthur legend. It’s more faithful than Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which is visually spectacular, but adulterates many aspects of the source material. Ironically, some of the imagery and set designs in Excalibur were originally created for Boorman’s shelved adaptation of Tolkien’s epic.

The primary source is Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, and the script is faithful to the style and mood of the source material. The screenwriters added depth to the story by drawing on scholarly mythographic works: From Ritual to Romance for the tension between paganism and Christianity, and The Golden Bough for the cycle of death and rebirth, and the mystical connection between the life of the King and the forces of nature. What Star Wars achieved by accident, Excalibur achieved deliberately. Contemporary critics, steeped in the “realistic” films of the 70’s, praised the visuals but panned the writing. They didn’t know what to make of a movie that took the Arthur myth seriously.

This is a film that never could have been made by Hollywood, today or in any other decade. It’s not a historical epic, it’s not a reimagining, it’s not a gritty reboot, it’s not an action movie with CGI monsters, it’s not a Chinese co-production, it doesn’t have a diverse cast, and it’s not a Disney cartoon with cutesy sidekicks, celebrity voices, and songs by Elton John. In fact, it’s not a kids’ movie at all. It deals with adult themes such as lust, betrayal, and retribution. It has the seriousness of a Shakespeare play. Compare this to the endless superhero films coming out ot Hollywood, whose visual spectacle and witty dialogue can’t rescue the threadbare plots and trite character motivations. When they try to be serious, they only come across as pretentious.

The cast includes Nigel Terry as Arthur, Nicol Williamson as Merlin, Nicholas Clay as Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, Helen Mirren as Morgana, Liam Neeson as Gawain, Corin Redgrave as Cornwall, Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance, and the director’s daughter Katrine as Arthur’s young mother. All the faces are British; there is no jarringly incongruous casting to appeal to ethnic audiences. After all, this is one of the founding legends of British culture (although Tolkien considered it not British enough, and decided to create his own).

Nigel Terry is believable and all-too-human as King Arthur. But the real star is Nicol Williamson, who brings Merlin to life with subtle wit and intelligence, and fire and thunder when necessary. The scenes with Merlin and Morgana are enhanced by the real-life enmity between Williamson and Helen Mirren, who has never looked more ravishing.

The score is unapologetically classical and Germanic, featuring the music of Richard Wagner and Carl Orff, along with an original score by Trevor Jones. The mood is completed by the ornate costumes, imaginative sets, and soft-focus cinematography. But the music and visuals are only a setting for the actors, who are the real focus of the movie. Perhaps this is why Hollywood still draws upon England when it needs an actor of gravitas to bring a classic story to life.

18 Comments
  • caleb says:

    In a way, this really is akin to a successor to German silent era epics. Its visuals, music, tone.

  • Anthony says:

    You are quite correct about this movie, but I will defend superhero films. I found Captain America: Civil War quite moving at times, and “The Dark Knight” was both serious and a genuinely deserved classic.

    Even the animated ” The Incredibles” NAILED it’s serious moments – Mr. Incredible’s “I can’t lose you again!” is a gut-wrenching moment.

    Superhero films can be dumb, but there’s no reason they have to be.

  • Anthony says:

    Also, Tolkien really considered not ENGLISH enough, and he was quite right; It is Welsh. Not that he didn’t start his own version of the take in verse.

  • keith says:

    This is going to sound sacrilegious, but I don’t really like Malory. I though his take on Artur dry and repetitive, as well shallow in a way. Malory, in my opinion, was master at sucking mystique and fun adventure from material that makes it really hard to do so.
    “Parzival” and “The Quest of the Holy Grail” I adore though. They are artistic, humane and posses spiritual depth that lacks in Malory. parzival is a tale of hermetic transformation, rich in symbolism of both Christian spiritual alchemy and exoteric Christianity, whereas “The Quest” is moral, exoteric Christian tale par excellence.

    • Nathan says:

      Since reading Stephen Lawhead’s Arthur, I’ve been intrigued by the Arthur of the Welsh Triads. They provide a different take on Arthur, from a time before the Matter of Britain started collecting stories from all over Europe.

      “Three Red Ravagers of the Island of Britain:
      “Rhun son of Beli, and Lleu Skilful Hand, and Morgant the Wealthy. But there was one who was a Red Ravager greater than all three: Arthur was his name. For a year neither grass nor plants used to spring up where one of the three would walk; but where Arthur went, not for seven years.”

    • john silence says:

      You should check out Howard Pyle! His Arthuriana was directly based on Le Morte d’Arthur and is, in my opinion, infinitely better read.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    Avengers was cool. I got a thrill out of seeing the pagan superhero, the capitalist superhero, the patriotic superhero, and the rage monster superhero all in one movie. It was like a gut-punch to the dominant Zeitgeist. But I didn’t want to see it more than once. Same with the Batman movies and LOTR movies. All very well done, but missing something.

    • Anthony says:

      I’ve actually seen “The Dark Knight”, “The Avengers” and DEFINITELY “The Incredibles” multiple times – “The Incredibles” I consider one of the best movies ever made, possibly the greatest animate film ever.

      Not that you’re not allowed to think that, but I’ll argue the merits of “The Incredibles” until the cows come home!

  • PCBushi says:

    Oh man, another one of my favorite films. Love seeing this (re)surface!

  • deuce says:

    One of my all-time favorite movies. I highly recommend listening to the Boorman commentary on the dvd. The man GOT it.

  • Astrsorceror says:

    Simply, the finest Arthurian movie ever made. Fenris has it dead on that it could never be made in Hollywood today.

  • questing_vole says:

    Yes, my favourite Arthurian film as well. I much prefer the medieval style of Excalibur to those other films that bypassed Malory in favour of the earlier Celtic sources of the Arthurian legend and reduced it to lice-ridden Celts rolling in mud.

    • icewater says:

      There ain’t a lot of lice and mud rolling in Celtic legends.

      But I agree, histrionically “authentic”, down-to-the earth takes on Arthur are doing it wrong by default.

  • SteveDoc22 says:

    I loved the very human battle scenes in Excalibur, especially the opening – the grunting and heavy breathing, the stumbling in the mud, the confusion – they seemed more real than any major film up until that time to.

  • deuce says:

    Yeah, this laid the visual template for stuff like GoT. It even started the tradition of filming “medieval” films in Ireland. The lighting is incredible, far beyond any of the WETA films. The feel of magic just saturates so many scenes without anything overt.

    Boorman is a true filmmaker while Jackson is a hen-pecked wannabee. Boorman gets masculinity and Western Civilization while Petey takes orders from the two-headed, man-hating she-beast I call Fralippa.

  • Paul D. Walker says:

    this is one of my all time favorite films. And yes, Merlin was magical…”like….*zaaaaap* Like Lightning!”

    i strongly dislike opera, but the musical score and the voices in the movie is pure beauty put to notes. it took me over 20 years to source and find a copy of the soundtrack to buy.

    beautiful, beautiful film.

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